I never thought I’d sympathise with someone who killed six members of their family quite to this extent. But Bella Mackie’s How to Kill Your Family awoke some gruesome and unimaginable instincts in me.
The book follows prison inmate Grace Bernard, who is writing a confidential confession for lack of something else to do while waiting to be appealed for a crime she was wrongfully convicted of.
Early on in the book, Grace declares unfazed that she has killed six members of her family, yet she is in prison for a murder she didn’t commit. Then, she proceeds to write about all her murders, her motives and goes into exhaustive detail about how she carried them out.
The way the book is written makes it clear from the start that our protagonist may also be the villain. After all, how else would you call a cold-blooded serial murderer who feels no remorse and acts like a hunter finding amusement in the prey’s suffering?
But Grace Bernard isn’t your usual serial killer.
Her motive is, on the surface, revenge, although she has never interacted with her victims prior to killing them.
Why Grace’s Story Is So Powerful
While the book doesn’t exactly intend to endorse killing so many people because your unhappiness is pinned on their mistakes, it certainly speaks for those who have given in to this impulse.
Grace Bernard grew up with a single mother, in almost extreme poverty, having to witness her mum work herself to exhaustion every day to be able to raise her. A former model who came to the UK from France to seek a career, Marie Bernard fell in love with mogul Simon Artemis who left her pregnant and showed a complete disinterest towards their child.
When Marie passed away from cancer, Grace was only 13 and knew almost nothing about her father. After her mum’s death, she discovered the pleading letters from Marie to Simon, asking him to at least get to know his daughter. The only letter in response revealed the cruel reality to Grace: her father blamed Marie for keeping the baby and made it clear he wanted nothing to do with her misfortune.
This is the story of so many other women and the revolting power dynamics within a couple when a baby is involved. Simon Artemis had the money and power to allow him to disappear and not care. Marie Bernard was left deceived and in a position to have to plead in order for her child to get a better upbringing.
Marie’s parents also failed her when disapproving of her career choice, they simply didn’t want to have any involvement in their daughter’s life, especially after Grace’s arrival.
This is why How to Kill Your Family is a story of the multiple layers of failed parenthood, privilege and the horrors of the patriarchy, which can mark a child for life and lead them to commit unimaginable crimes to claim what’s rightfully theirs.
Grace Bernard is not a villain, entirely, she’s a child who was failed by everyone around her, including her mother.
However, to blame her deeds entirely on childhood trauma would also be unfair. Grace is a powerful, smart woman with great potential. She’s brave, analytical, manipulative (I’m declaring this a quality) and ruthless. She’s the epitome of female force unleashed and she knows it.
How to Feel About Grace?
The book is basically a big character study. It takes you through all the emotions and opinions you can have about the protagonist. From empathy to anger, to admiration, to disapproval and even, dare I say, actual horror, Grace’s character and her deeds will make you feel it all.
If you’ve read the book, you know Janine’s murder was a particularly sinister and sadistic one. Andrew’s murder was a little unfair, and Bryony’s murder was pure, evil genius.
But Grace (as the narrator) also makes these people seem like the worst of the worst, like parasites whose deaths make the world a better place. But can you trust Grace in her descriptions of them? Or are you seeing everything through the murderer’s lenses?
Why 4/5 Stars?
I enjoyed the book so much I didn’t even realise when I was minutes away from the end (I listened on audio). It swept me away and threw me head-first within the story. It was very gripping, very engaging, extremely intriguing.
Until the end.
The ending seems to have divided everyone. Some readers liked it, others didn’t. To me, that’s where the last star was lost. I didn’t find the ending satisfying enough.
I liked that it explained how things eventually unfolded, but it left me wondering and needing more. The post-scriptum only made it more confusing. I’m one for more precise endings, where you know you’ve reached a proper conclusion, although the characters’ lives might be continuing beyond the narrative. And this one didn’t provide that.
However, there’s no denying the character study was excellent, the murders were original and very well handled, and for the pile of emotions it made me go through, Bella Mackie deserves all the praise.